On September 17, 1991, the band that had been on top of the hard rock heap since its debut album Appetite For Destruction went multi-platinum back in ‘88 made the groundbreaking — and seemingly insane — decision to release two separate full-length albums of original material at the same time. “An act of almost colossal arrogance,” one writer described it. (On vinyl, each one was actually a double album in and of itself). The Use Your Illusion project was a microcosm of the arena-rock breed of populism that had been annoying intellectuals and highbrow music writers ever since Led Zeppelin and its legions of high school parking lot smokers dropped a bomb on the progressive ambitions of the Woodstock Generation.
Of course, those progressive ambitions returned with a vengeance in the form of “alternative rock,” which killed off Guns N’ Roses quite handily. Turn, turn, turn.
Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II represented a lot of things – inflated runaway egos, rock & roll super-indulgence, perhaps the pinnacle of “event” albums, but most of all they represented the end of an era.
These albums were completely over-the-top, sonically massive, and in a way that seems charmingly archaic now, totally ridiculous in their excess. Overdubbed to the breaking point, featuring synthesized strings and brass, spoken word segments, and enough hubris to fuel three Kanye Wests, the fact that the Use Your Illusions were even allowed to exist opened the door to the more subtle, self-conscious, and self-effacing alternative rock that had been waiting quietly in the underground for a few years. In 1992, Alternative Nation would topple Dinosaur Rock, and cause a complete re-set on how music designed for the masses was recorded, marketed, sold, consumed, written about, thought about.
So the Use Your Illusions have become something of a milestone, a “You Are Now Leaving…” sign. Just like Nirvana’s Nevermind, released exactly one week later (I can’t believe the beautiful symmetry either), became a “You Are Now Entering…” sign.
For some reason (midlife crisis?), in the late summer of this year, I found myself gravitating toward and listening to the Use Your Illusions quite frequently. As with most of my temporary obsessions, I tried to think of a way to spin it into a Holy Bee blog piece, but for weeks, I couldn’t find an angle. I didn’t want to do a straightforward review, nor a “Holy Bee Recommends” segment…because I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Frankly, the albums are a mess.
So I thought briefly of doing the classic music-nerd parlor game of winnowing a sprawling double album into a tight, cohesive single album by discarding weak tracks and championing the keepers. A great exercise to foster discussion and debate on things like The Beatles (“White Album”), London Calling, and of course, Use Your Illusion I and II. But seeing how that activity has been done so incredibly frequently (by me and my friends, you and your friends, and certainly by other bloggers), I didn’t want to make it the whole point of the essay.
I didn’t know what I had to say about the Illusions, then it occurred to me (in the bathroom, where I get my best ideas.) Why not say everything? I had the brilliant idea of doing a shorter version of a 33⅓ book, which are not that long to begin with.
33⅓ is a series of small, slim paperbacks put out by Bloomsbury Publishing, each one dedicated to a milestone album. They are usually written by a critic or journalist, but several have been written by musicians. (My favorite 33⅓ book, on The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, was written by Bill Janovitz of the 90s indie-rock band Buffalo Tom). There are currently 98 33⅓ books in print, with several more slated though 2016. The authors are free to write about the album in whatever way they want: technical breakdowns, musical analysis, personal reflections on what the album meant to them, short fiction, etc. Or a combination of it all. No set format, and that’s what makes them fascinating.
I now had an approach. Regular Holy Bee readers know I’m a throw-in-the-kitchen-sink kind of writer, so I decided to dump all of my thoughts on this peculiar pair of albums into one massive, multi-part piece. My own little 33⅓ book.
Imagine my heartbreak when I discovered that there already was a 33⅓ book on the Use Your Illusions! I was stunned. Frankly, the 33⅓ books are a little on the hipster/elite side — their latest entry is on Sigur Ros’ (), to give you an idea — and I was very surprised Use Your Illusion I and II would appeal to their regular readers. Back to the drawing board for the Holy Bee?
But wait! The Use Your Illusion I and II 33⅓ book is perhaps the most reviled work in the entire series. Former Spin and Village Voice music editor Eric Weisbard pissed off nearly everyone with his take on the albums. Here’s some titles of the scathing Amazon reviews:
“This Book Is Garbage !!”
“Yikes. Not for the fans!”
“An hour of my life I won’t get back.”
“Wow – This writer is completely self-indulgent and pretentious.” (The Holy Bee looked around nervously at that one.)
“The Worst Book in the 33⅓ Series I’ve Read.”
And so on.
Weisbard decided to write a piece about popular culture in the early 90s, using the Use Your Illusions as a filter through which he examines the changing of the musical guard described above. What infuriated readers is that his look at the music on the Use Your Illusions is cursory and intentionally secondary. It’s based on his memories of the album from twenty years ago…without re-listening to it until he wrote the final chapter! By his own admission, he was far from a Guns N’ Roses expert, and not even much of a fan.
I was siding with the indignant Amazon reviewers, until I plunked down a ten-spot and actually downloaded the damn thing to my Kindle to see what all the fuss was about.
It turns out Eric Weisbard is a good writer. With every turn of the page, he fires off an eloquent passage expressing the whole end-of-an-era idea much better than I ever could. To wit: “The idolatry required to sustain albums on a 1970s or 1980s scale could no longer be met by a popular culture whose niche markets were collectively far more valuable than its consensus heroes…In the season of the blockbuster [album], CDs still came in ‘long boxes’: tall rectangles shaped like skyscrapers, and meant to…fit record store bins, and provide at least a hint of the majesty that LP covers had offered. Unlike vinyl, however, once you bought a CD and ripped the long box open the effect was instantly gone. A couple of years later, the industry stopped faking consumers; the aura of the LP had been replaced by the profit margin of the CD…We need to hear Use Your Illusion I and II with the long boxes still intact, those twin towers of September 1991. Filter back in the audience they summoned and expected to speak for…”
And there’s more where that came from. (Check out his NPR article on Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” if you like his style.) I understood what he was trying to do, and I think he succeeded in doing it. I can definitely recommend his book — with the caveat that, as the reviewers have made clear, it’s not really about the Use Your Illusion albums
And when he did get to some thumbnail analysis of the songs, he gets everything entirely wrong, naturally.
Good thing I’m here. I decided to plunge ahead and write the 33⅓ (or 66⅔ if you will) on Use Your Illusion I and II that people seemed to actually want. Along with my picks for a single-disc version. Not even Eric Weisbard could resist that little exercise. He may be a great writer, but his single-disc UYI mix blows.
October 1988…My first (sort-of) encounter with Guns N’ Roses…Appetite For Destruction had been out for well over a year, but it was a slow starter, crawling up the charts and building word-of-mouth. I was halfway through my middle school years, eighth grade had just started for me…
I was living in the middle of nowhere, on a rural river road surrounded by thirteen acres of walnut trees. There’s nothing like spending your early pubescence in isolation to turn you inward and make you fascinated with whatever cultural minutiae comes your way. This is how bloggers are born. We had no cable TV, just a tall exterior antenna that had to be adjusted by whacking it with an equally tall pole. We got the three networks, PBS, and a few local UHF stations. The timer on the VCR kicked on every night at 11:30 and kicked off at 1:30, having captured The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman, my required after-school viewing the next day as soon as the bus dropped me off. I would trot through a quarter-mile of walnuts, let myself in with my hidden key, and squeeze in Johnny and Dave before my parents got home from work and commandeered the TV for the nightly news.
CD players were the big thing that year. I didn’t have one yet. I had an old turntable in my room on which I spun my vinyl Beatles albums. I had long since collected them all, and now I was attempting to collect their solo albums. It was getting challenging, because vinyl was disappearing from the stores. I had to rely on Denio’s Flea Market in Roseville (my parents went at least once a month, and I usually tagged along). My most recent acquisitions around this time were two Wings albums — Venus And Mars and Wings’ Greatest, which contained “Live And Let Die.” I must have listened to that song 500 times that month.
We were about five miles from the town of Robbins (pop. 250), where I attended the tiny K-8 school with nine other eighth-graders. By that fall, it was decided that I was old enough to pedal my bike into town on Saturdays, via the levee, the gravel washboard roads bisecting the rice fields, and Highway 113, to give me some semblance of a social life. I remember that particular day as being one of the first really cool days of the year, and the air was smoky due to the stubble burning. My agenda was to visit two school friends, Nick and John. Nick lived in the biggest house in town, and had a new stereo, with a CD player and a pair of massive speakers that looked like Stonehenge monoliths. He demoed it by playing “Money For Nothing” off of the 1986 Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms. It sounded great. Even with the volume knob at 4, it made the walls shake. I wanted a CD player.
Then it was across the street to John’s. John lived in more straitened circumstances. Small, grubby house, no CD player for his stereo. This didn’t stop him from lugging his speakers out to his front yard and treating this little farming town to a healthy dose of 2 Live Crew’s Move Somethin’ (on cassette). Then and now, I never understood the appeal of what I now know is the Miami bass subgenre of “dirty rap.” It’s not particularly funny or sexy, and its vaunted explicitness would only be shocking to the most blue-nosed, pearl-clutching grandmother. I guess John — a half-bright eighth grader on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder — was its target audience. After fifteen minutes or so of sitting in a lawn chair listening to Luther Campbell rhyme “dick” with “sick,” and failing to rhyme anything at all with “pussy,” I got up to leave.
“Don’t go yet,” said John. “I just got that new Guns N’ Roses tape.” I had never heard a note of their music, but my hazy notion of Guns N’ Roses was as a metal band, similar to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Ozzy — favorites of several of my friends, but not mine. I had been reared on The Beatles, and the early days of MTV (when we still lived in town and had cable) — Culture Club, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran. Even as I entered my teens, my sensitive, pop-trained ears rejected the harshness and darkness of metal. The hardest I rocked back then was 1984-era Van Halen, and “Live And Let Die.”
“It’s not just duh-duh-duh-duh-duh,” he offered sympathetically, knowing my musical proclivities were a little more conservative, and doing his best verbal imitation of the jackhammer rhythm of metal. “There’s this one slow song called ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ that just goes ‘ohhhhh, sweet child o’ mi-y-ine…’” John’s vocal cords tried to wrap themselves around the ballad’s melody, and failed quite spectacularly. I flipped up my kickstand, and pedaled off. Guns N’ Roses remained unheard.
Not long after that, I heard Guns N’ Roses without realizing it. While watching the fifth Dirty Harry movie, The Dead Pool, on video, I saw a pre-fame Jim Carrey, playing a decadent rock star shooting a video, lip-synch to “Welcome To The Jungle.” The scene was ridiculous, and Carrey far from believable as a self-destructive Jim Morrison type, but I remember liking the song.
Christmas 1988… I got a new stereo and CD player.
August 1989… My family moved from its country house back to civilization just in time for me to start high school. I spent the last month of summer gorging myself on a hundred cable channels, especially MTV. One of the first videos I saw was GN’R’s “Paradise City,” with its chiming guitars, anthemic chorus, and the band’s late-80s brand of swagger and charisma on full display. I finally understood why they were so popular. I made a mental note to get the CD, but the opportunity for CDs were few and far between…I usually had to wait until my birthday or Christmas, or save up seventeen dollars a quarter here and a dollar there. And my to-get list was so long…The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin…my classic-rock collection had to be impeccable before I could turn to the new stuff. GN’R would have to wait…
Most of you know, or at least have a vague idea, of the drug-and-booze ingesting gutter-rat miscreants who made up the Last Great Rock Band. The engine of said band was virtuoso lead guitarist Slash, hidden behind curtains of raven hair and his ever-present top hat, along with bassist Duff McKagan, the towering road-dog veteran of several Seattle punk bands, and drummer Steven Adler, who was never more than competent but looked every inch the rock star, with blond tresses and a hatred of shirt-wearing.
Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin was the band’s secret weapon, a shadowy figure “who always had somewhere else to be,” and a songwriting machine responsible (or co-responsible) for their biggest hits. He was the one most dedicated to carrying on the style and tradition of the R&B-based classic rock laid down by The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, flying in the face of the style-over-substance glam scene permeating the early-80s Sunset Strip, where the Gunners got their start. In his floppy caps and gypsy scarves, he looked different from the rest, a presence seemingly from 1978 rather than ‘88.
In reading the band biography Watch You Bleed by Stephen Davis, supplemented by the autobiographies “written” by Slash and Duff, singer and primary lyricist W. Axl Rose appears to be, quite possibly, one of the worst human beings ever to walk the face of the earth. A massively self-centered black hole of hatred with a hair-trigger temper and unjustified persecution complex, Rose has weathered accusations of racism and homophobia due to some his early lyrics by citing freedom of artistic expression (and his open admiration of Elton John and Freddie Mercury indicates at least mixed feelings about homosexuality), but his well-known track record of relentlessly beating the shit out of his girlfriends is unimpeachable proof of his fundamental vileness. He cites bipolar disorder and unsubstantiated childhood abuse (drawn from phony-baloney “regression therapy” sessions) as excuses for his behavior. But not everyone suffering from bipolar disorder is this colossal of an asshole. (By all accounts, he was like this even before he was famous, but fame and wealth, of course, magnified his tendencies a thousandfold.)
But that voice…from a bass moan to a banshee shriek and everything in between, all colored by his bottomless rage, Rose tackled the lead vocals, most of the backing vocals, distorted spoken asides, and shouted exhortations that put GN’R above their contemporaries. He made Vince Neil and Bret Michaels look like fairground clowns. He was the best in the business at that time, and Guns N’ Roses is unthinkable without him. (Case in point: Guns N’ Roses without W. Axl Rose is essentially Velvet Revolver, and no one wants that.)
Were they actually the Last Great Rock Band? In terms of demeanor, absolutely. Heaps of photographic and video evidence prove they did indeed wander about in public in poodle hair, leather pants, and oversized aviator shades, with a lit cigarette constantly dangling from their lips (watch that original video for “Paradise City” that captivated me so — it looks like a Marlboro ad) — totally without irony or self-consciousness. This was beginning to look as outmoded as zoot suits by the spring of 1992, at least everywhere but their nesting area on the Strip. In terms of sound, hard rock continued after them, of course, but never with the world’s eye firmly on it.
OK, time to break down these twin boondoggles known as Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II and see what makes them tick.
It’s a fool’s errand to try and chart the development of their songs, because the band’s songwriting methodology was so scattershot. They tended to start with a riff, or a bass line, or a guitar melody, then those were stitched together Frankenstein-style with similar isolated bits, and stewed over and played through for months (or years) until they coalesced into an actual song. Axl then provided the bulk of the lyrics right before the tapes rolled.
But I am a fool, and my this is my errand. Let’s chart the development of the songs on the Use Your Illusions.
We can start with the songs they already had written before thoughts turned to an Appetite follow-up:
“Back Off Bitch,” “Dead Horse,” and “Don’t Cry” were the oldest, dating from when Axl and Izzy were in their pre-Guns band called Hollywood Rose. “You Could Be Mine” was written alongside most of the other Appetite songs, and came within a whisker of being on that album. (As did “Don’t Cry.” It was left off when they decided they didn’t want more than one ballad on their debut, and they knew “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was a monster.)
“The Garden” was a circa 1986 collaboration amongst Axl and Del James, a heavily-tattooed biker type with literary aspirations, and West Arkeen, a genial sometime musician and full-time partier who was a fixture on the L.A. club scene. James and Arkeen were two of the band’s favorite outside co-writers.
Axl had been tinkering with “November Rain” for years. At one point, it was demoed at a length of eighteen minutes. Izzy had been batting around “Perfect Crime” for some time as well.
“Civil War” was worked on through the Japan/Australia leg of the Appetite tour in December 1988. “Coma” was Slash’s meandering work that he put together in his bored, restless drug-bingeing days after they came off the road.
Guns N’ Roses did nothing quickly, and it was quite clear that any follow-up to Appetite For Destruction would be years in the making. Their record label, Geffen, hastily rushed out a patched together 8-song “mini-album” called GN’R Lies at the end of 1988 as a stopgap measure – made up of old pre-Appetite demos with concert crowd noises mixed in, and a few acoustic numbers from recent sessions – including a new hit single, “Patience,” and the controversy-courting “One In A Million,” with Axl’s barbed and un-ironic references to “f****ts” and “n****rs” keeping the band in the headlines while songs for the new album(s) came together. Negative attention is still attention.
With a handful of old songs, and a few scraps of new material, the next of many, many steps was to get away from the distractions of L.A. and get down to serious songwriting. They rented a rehearsal studio, packed their leathers, bottles, and syringes, and headed for Chicago…
To Be Continued.